The lights were low. The room was packed. As the tiny double doors to "The Club" slid open I tip-toed across the back of the room to find an open seat on an old wooden pew in the shadows of the church building. Of course, I had to wear my cowboy boots...with the loudest possible heel on hardwood floors. Trying ever so hard to avoid the creaks when I sat I had my eyes fixed on two people, both standing with their guitars under the stage lights reflecting off the chandeliers made of blank CD's.
We had arrived just in time to catch the second song of the opening act. After driving 45 minutes, fifteen dollars and a hand stamp got us into the MRC building (Music Resource Center) in Charlottesville, VA and we were immediately thrown into the swells of the local fans chasing the musical talents of Tift Merritt and friends.
I had never heard of Tift, nor had I ever thought much about her genre of music - which I suppose can be described as a combination of country/jazz/blues/blue grass tunes. I didn't really know what to expect when my friends Tricia and Jaime asked me to tag along to a concert. Hey, for a fifteen dollar ticket price, my expectations were low but I thought why not...something new to do on a Wednesday night. And so we piled in the car and headed for a Jam Session featuring two new artists I never knew existed.
I definitely trusted Tricia's judgement in music and especially in this area as she always knows where the best food, fun, and shopping secrets can be found. And I certainly gained more respect for her taste when I found out on the ride into town that her once college fling was Dierks Bentley...one of my top 15 favorite country artists. I mean, how cool is that?! So when she put on Tift's music for the remainder of the drive, I got excited about this low dollar concert we were going to find in a tiny nook in a town I know very little about.
Tift's opening number was a woman named Shannon Worrell who categorizes herself as folk/pop/country. Did you even know that existed? Regardless, I LOVED both women and just like the rest of the artsy crowd I found myself bobbing my head to the melodies and soft guitar music with a goofy grin on my face. Several times I caught myself thinking my friend Ashley would have been perfect to have along on this adventure...totally her thing! And as any good groupies would do, as soon as Shannon was done playing we walked ourselves to a local pub for a beer during the intermission. It was such a neat night, because I had never done something like this before, and I actually enjoyed every second of it.
When Tift came on stage, she seemed shy and quiet and was full of smiles and Thank You's for the clapping, whistling fans. She was cute and laid back and just looked like a girl with a guitar who happened to play the piano and harmonica along with her soft, sometimes raspy voice. She was grateful, full of stories from her home in North Carolina, and she worked the crowd walking through the aisles with her guitar, unplugged, belting out her most appropriate tune for the evening - Virginia.
But most of all there was something so inspiring about walking into a room where I had no expectations, surrounded by people who were clearly passionate about these artists. They were chill, happy, and just glad to be in an old, dusty venue with no bells or whistles or flashing lights. It was so unlike any other concert I had ever been to and even when Shannon's mic broke and Tift's keyboard needed some impromptu tape the crowd loved it. Every second of it. And they were so appreciative of not who the person was but for their talent and skill.
So many of the major shows I've been to have always been about the celebrity and how popular they are on the radio or tv. These singers were raw, unedited, and real people. Now, I'm sure they're quite popular to those who follow their music as both have several hundered thousand hits on their MySpace pages, but to me, they were just like any other Average Jane. And they performed like they were.
So here's a challenge. Look up your local dive joints and see what bands are playing. Take a chance and stumble into the bar, church, or warehouse and support the rising stars. It'll probably be worth the fifteen dollars and you'll likely enjoy being in a setting that's uncertain to you and your expectations. And challenge number 2 - download some of Tift and Shannon's music for a new playlist on your iPod. Their slow tunes and soft voices are perfect for the after work subway ride home or for easy listening on Sundays as you drive along with the windows down.
And like any good country singers, there are plenty of songs about life, love and heartache...the only thing I probably should have expected.